Arizona's solar aspirations in peril
The state aims to tap its 325 sunny days a year, but loss of an energy tax credit threatens its big plans.
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Representative Giffords is urging that the government pay for the extension by reducing tax credits to oil and gas companies. During "the next five years, [oil and gas companies] are slated to receive about $17 billion. That money instead should be going toward renewable energy," she says. "It is critical, and I believe Democrats and Republicans acknowledge it."Skip to next paragraph
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The Arizona Public Service Co., the utility that is the driving force behind plans for the Gila Bend solar plant, already owns smaller solar plants. This yet-to-be-built one, called Solana (Spanish for "sunny place"), would cover three square miles with trough mirrors and receiver pipes and would include two 140-megawatt steam generators. It would provide enough energy to power 70,000 Arizona homes, according to Barbara Lockwood, an APS official.
Arizona law now requires utilities to invest in renewable energy. Currently, 90 percent of the state's electricity is produced by natural gas and coal.
"They have to generate 15 percent of electricity from renewable-energy sources by 2025," says Govindasamy TamizhMani, director of the photovoltaic testing lab at Arizona State University. "So all the utility companies are trying to meet that mandate."
Giffords, who ran for Congress in 2006 on a platform of pursuing solar energy, recently led a group of lawmakers and experts from Arizona on a fact-finding trip to Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, home of North America's largest operational solar photovoltaic system. The $100 million, 14-megawatt plant is an example of what might be done at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson, says the freshman lawmaker.
"What's so exciting about solar energy is that it creates an elegant solution to three of the largest challenges that ... face our country today," says Giffords. The first, she says, is US dependence on foreign energy. The second is global warming, and the third is advances in technology.
Those advances in technology, she argues, could help America lead the world in this field.
"I'm very concerned that America is falling behind. Pursuing solar energy, cleaner-burning energy, renewable energy can absolutely lead to economic prosperity," says Gifford.
Many in the solar energy field say the rising price of oil, and the possibility of a future tax on carbon emissions, is likely to make the solar option more competitive – and soon.
"People are looking at some kind of cost parity, some comparable costs in the next seven to 10 years," says Ms. Barnhart of AzRISE.
ASU's Dr. TamizhMani agrees. "At the moment, the industry depends on incentive money, but by 2015 the cost of conventional electricity and solar are expected to be equal."